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A Response to “I Can’t Enumerate …”

PUBLISHED: May 5, 2008

VQR wishes to apologize to any writers who took offense to our recent blog entries, in which we made public anonymized snippets from internal correspondence regarding our submissions. It seems obvious—and is regrettable—that some writers got the idea that VQR delights in belittling unsolicited submissions. Nothing could be further from the truth. This publication—and, indeed, its long-standing reputation—is built on a tradition of finding fine work by new writers amid the slush pile. Over the decades, this journal has been able to claim first publications by writers like Nadine Gordimer, Adrienne Rich, and Hayden Carruth—writers then wholly unknown and submitting over the transom. Since I took over as editor in 2003, I have worked hard to continue that tradition. We published the very first works of Pauline W. Chen and Martin Preib, both of whom went on to receive National Magazine Award nominations for their contributions. Many of the writers now in our regular stable began their association with VQR through blind submission—J. Malcom Garcia, Daniel Alarcón, James P. Othmer, Joshua Poteat, David J. Morris, Nicholas Schmidle, Neil Shea, Alessandra Lynch, Patricia Lockwood, and Glen Retief. Garcia and I still haven’t met—though his work has now appeared in VQR a half dozen times and will be included in next year’s Best American Travel Writing and Best American Nonrequired Reading.

In short, the tone of our blog post did not correctly represent our commitment to our authors. This is a disservice to our submitters, our readers, and our goals. However, I do think that the comments, if not their public airing, are a fair response to many of the submissions we receive and accurately reflect the righteous indignation that we often feel as readers. Too much of what we see these days strikes us as merely competent—well-crafted but passionless in its execution or, just as often, passionate only about the minor travails of the world of its author. No editor nor writer feels more strongly about the possibility of finding the universal in the small, but we also ravenously crave great writing that takes on big issues. Gutsy, fearless, hard-nosed writing. Writing that matters. Its absence makes us ill-tempered; it makes us question our enterprise. We work hard and want to see evidence of equal effort from writers. Such discussions, however, should be undertaken more thoughtfully than we have done thus far on the blog. I hope personally to rectify that situation and soon. Some writers have demanded to know why we have grown to feel such frustration toward our submitters. It’s a question worthy of a thoughtful answer—and will likely be as controversial as anything Waldo has said. But at least the discussion will center on what we consider the shortcomings of American writing, not a few comments meant to be private expressions of disappointment and frustration.

For now, suffice to say that we have certain things that we want so fiercely from American literature that we have made a misstep. We have descended in our discourse, when it is our stated mission to elevate the level of discussion whenever possible. That said, thoughtful articulation of what we envision—our call to arms, our mini-manifesto—will take a while to draft. We hope your interest in this subject is more than fleeting and deeper than personal indignation. We hope that you, too, care about what ails American literature and will have the patience to wait for our more considered statement and engage in an extended, productive discussion.

In the meantime, we have removed the potentially offending portions of the blog post, leaving our own impeachable statements but striking anything that might be construed as hurtful.

More soon,
Ted Genoways


Jennifer Rice Epstein's picture
Jennifer Rice E... · 15 years ago
Thank you for your heartfelt and thoughtful reply. I look forward to a spirited VQR-led discussion of American literature in the coming months.
Brian J. Geiger's picture
Though understandable, I suppose, it’s a shame that people took the post poorly. I thought it was an enjoyable post, even as someone who has submitted his work to literary and other magazines in the past. On the other hand, I’ve worked in the publications business, and can say that we had to deal with our share of poor submissions, so I understand it from the other side, as well. To, to be fair, all of our submissions were paid advertising, rather than writer submissions. Good luck with the mini-manifesto. And even if you apologize for your mistakes, don’t be ashamed of them. Going the safe route does not bring greatness.
Andrew W.'s picture
Waldo, Ted: I enjoyed it all. Readers and writers do benefit from seeing editors’ reactions—even when those reactions are snarky or petty. It’s part of the publishing conversation that’s largely missing. I wish I could have been on VQR staff last year when I was taking time off for chemo. I could have contributed my boilerplate response to the many emails along the lines of, “WTF haven’t you replied to my submission!?”
Michael Gushue's picture
This was very chivalrous of you. I was quite surprised that some found it offensive.
Drew Johnson's picture
Drew Johnson · 15 years ago
For my money, part of the reason why this is such a necessarily thorny topic is that readers (whether at magazines or publishers) are typically only ever remembered for their boneheaded moments. That is, “What’s all this Lolita crap?” wrote Horace J. Appletart in a Farrar,Strauss,and Cudahy internal memo re Nabokov manuscript #14, dated 1954. (Utterly false.) We only ever hear about readers when they’re wrong. No one who hasn’t read for a journal will ever really understand how unbelievably bad or boring 9 out of 10 submissions are. Or how difficult it is to keep your balance (and ability to recognize fine writing) after slogging through so much terrible writing. Yet this makes readers sound wise & heroic. That isn’t true, either. Most editorial panels don’t trust each other to make coffee, much less make a judgment about the relative worth of a story or poem. Tastes differ so profoundly that the best writing often creates bitterly divided factions, while mere competence winds up creating consensus (but can’t sustain interest). A quick scan of the back of the entire run of ANY literary journal underlines my point. It’s all a big fistfight of opinion. There is nothing like consensus and when there is, it’s generally suspect. Get in there and shove.
Alexis E Santi's picture
The goal of the literature is that one party “hears” the other. The talent that it takes to develop that motion between two parties is difficult, challenging and takes years upon years to master. There are no “natural” writers, one cannot master the craft of writing from birth, or as a toddler who masters Bach banging on the piano or conducts a concerto barely standing. In the world of literature no such example has ever graced the earth. It takes time, hard work, drafts, friendships, a thick skin and a sprinkle of talent. We founded a little literary journal two years ago that would not shoo you away if your story didn’t cut the mustard. We decided that while we were cool with lifting up and praising 2 or 3 writers a quarter but found a way to lift up and praise the other 523 writers that submitted to us every quarter. We started giving (for free) some short thoughts, about a paragraph or two about what we were thinking. We decided not to open up the mail, take your submission fee when we ran a contest and feel as if we “deserved” your money from just reading say a couple of pages of your story, an action which in the world of cons is next to only the pyramid scheme, in my humble opinion. Yes, some writers need help–and we know (the we being a trained, hard working editorial staff) reading their story 100% of the time what it could use for a revision. Again, 100% of the time our very nature and training allows us the skills to say what is wrong. You have the skills as writers and editors that work for one of the best MFA programs in the country to help their writing. At Our Stories this is “the conversation” that is lacking at every other journal. It is not helpful; it is not part of the conversation to insult developing writers. IT accomplishes nothing and is tantamount to shaking hands with the thought that is behind a racial slur that puts someone in their place. In this case your staff suggested, “don’t come back, you’re not worthy”. The half-baked justification and I quote: “accurately reflect the righteous indignation that we often feel as readers” shows a window into the mind of an editorial staff that they are angry, they are frustrated by the very people that support them, give money to their contests, read them and submit to them. Does a therapist lash out at their patient and say, “What the F’ is wrong with you? You’re terrible!” And, pray tell, why should the rules be different in a literary journal than the very classes in an MFA program or a BA creative writing course? Imagine the horror of such statements, in the bubble of a workshop? You decided to work at a literary journal and read stories, if you need a beer after you read twenty stories, pop open a beer but don’t lash out on a blog. Please. I think we’re helpful at Our Stories to our writers, we see them come back with their stories time after time and when we pass on a story and we tell them why, or how they can improve the next draft and you know what? They thank us for their rejections and anytime someone thanks us profusely for rejecting them, well I think we’re doing something right. Best, Alexis Enrico Santi Editor in Chief & Founder
Lee Rice Epstein's picture
Lee Rice Epstein · 15 years ago
This is exactly why I read VQR. Ted, what a wonderful and insightful post. I heartily echo my wife’s sentiment regarding a spirited and thoughtful discussion of American literature.
Stan Dards's picture
Stan Dards · 15 years ago
Wish I could have read the original post. That the VQR capitulated, removing the offending article, is unfortunate. Just as there are some people who cannot bake bread or play the sitar or win at Yahtzee, there are some people who CAN’T WRITE. It’s true. Perhaps every human has a great novel waiting inside, most likely many novels, but it takes someone who CAN WRITE to make it happen. Don’t be ashamed. Don’t feel bad. Keep trying. A sense of humour will help you through the bad times. A day job will help you through the worst.

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